Who Reaped the Soft Power Benefits from the U.S. Invasion of Iraq?

April 25, 2021 Topic: military Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: ObamaMilitaryTroopsIraqHistory

Who Reaped the Soft Power Benefits from the U.S. Invasion of Iraq?

The Iraq war was an unexpected gift to America’s adversaries.


Here’s What You Need to Know: Every player of the popular video game Civilization knows to hit the save button before engaging in the risky, stupid invasion of foreign country. In the case of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it became apparent after the first few months that the war was not working out as its framers had envisioned.  The failure to find weapons of mass destruction was only the icing, so to speak, on the disaster of failed reconciliation, state collapse, and executive incompetence.

What if we had “saved game” before we invaded Iraq? What would America’s strategic options look like today?


The Middle East

In 2003, we spoke of the policy of “dual containment” as a problem that needed a solution.  How could the United States manage a pair of hostile countries right next to one another? Today, the wiser among us recognize that “dual containment” was, in large part, a solution to its own problem.  The animosity of the Hussein regime and the Islamic Republic of Iran meant that neither could achieve overarching influence in the Gulf.

In the wake of the Iraq War, “dual containment” has become “basket case management,” as Iraq has ceased to exist as a relevant strategic actor, and Iranian influence has grown in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.  While the U.S. no longer has to worry about Hussein, it has been forced to devote its military and political attention not only to the maintenance of the shaky Baghdad government but also to the resistance of Iranian power in the region.

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The impact of the Iraq War on the Arab Spring is more difficult to sort out.  The framers of the war hoped that the establishment of a democratic Iraq would spur anti-authoritarian reactions around the region, although they also hoped that U.S. clients (including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states) would be spared. Something along these lines did indeed happen in 2011, but only well after most in the region had concluded that the invasion of Iraq was a disastrous failure.

And indeed, the fruits of the Arab Spring have been limited at best.  Tunisia represents the clearest case of success, while Libya has fallen into chaos, authoritarian forces have reasserted themselves in Egypt, and Syria has become an unending cauldron of violence and brutality. In Iraq itself, the legacy of the invasion of 2003 seems to be an inability to escape obligations to the new Iraqi government; the United States continues to act as the Iraqi air force and continues to struggle to train reliable Iraqi army forces.

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Was dual containment manageable in the long run?  The U.S. has spent far more in blood and treasure since 2003 than it did between 1991 and 2003, so from a purely military and financial standpoint the answer is clearly “yes.” And while dual containment would have left the dreadful Hussein regime in power, it likely would have avoided the worst of the several civil wars that Iraq has endured in the past twelve years.

Russia and China:

Did Russia or China take advantage of the U.S. invasion of Iraq to advance their interests?  This question demands the follow-up of “How would Russian or Chinese behavior have changed if the U.S. had avoided the Iraqi quagmire?” The answer, probably, is “not much.”

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The Iraqi campaign surely occupied U.S. attention and used up American capabilities, but the likelihood of U.S. military intervention in a campaign involving either Russia or China was vanishingly small in any case.  The only conflict of note that the U.S. might have played a part in was the 2008 South Ossetia War.  Although the Georgians desperately sought American intervention, the Bush administration wisely limited its support to rhetoric.

The rise of China and the increased belligerence of Russia owe more to geopolitical factors than to anything specifically associated with the Iraq War.  At best, we might find some association between the rise of oil prices in the wake of the invasion of Iraq and the strength of the Russian state (China did not benefit from higher oil prices. However, the increase in oil prices after 2003 owes at least as much to the growth of the Chinese and Indian economies as it does to the decision to invade.)

Russia and China have surely enjoyed soft power benefits from the U.S. invasion of Iraq.  Moscow regularly responds to U.S. criticism of its actions in Ukraine by referring to the 2003 invasion, although it also points to the 1999 Kosovo War and the 2011 Libya intervention.  Beijing regularly questions American pretensions to maritime husbandry in the South China Sea, fueled to some extent by lingering unhappiness about the invasion of Iraq. But the long-term impact of this soft power boost is uncertain.


The invasion of Iraq affected Afghanistan in two ways.  First, it diverted U.S. government resources away from Afghanistan at a time when the Taliban was clearly suffering from a devastating defeat.  Second, it undermined the legitimacy of the Afghanistan war by presenting the operation merely as one of (potentially) several invasions of Muslim countries, rather than as a uniquely necessary effort to destroy a uniquely horrible regime.

It goes too far to claim that more attention to Afghanistan in the middle of the last decade would have led to the complete destruction of the Taliban, and an end to the war.  The roots of the Taliban’s survival are more complex, and more difficult to dig out, than a simple diversion of resources would suggest.  At the same time, it is equally hard to argue that additional attention would not have made Afghanistan at least somewhat more secure. In particular, a strong U.S. commitment to Afghanistan (made impossible by the Iraq War) could have limited the degree to which Pakistan sought to make mischief in the region.


The biggest effects of the Iraq War, and the most enduring limitations, may have come in how the conflict affected the U.S. military, and changed the attitudes of Americans toward the use of force.

With respect to the former, the Iraq War undoubtedly slowed research and development of advanced weapon systems within the U.S. Department of Defense.  Without Iraq, the United States might have a much larger fleet of F-22s, for example.  The U.S. Navy might expect additional Zumwalt class destroyers, and the Army’s Future Combat Systems might never have died an ignominious death.  In addition to specific platforms, DoD might have taken advantage of the 2000s to pursue a variety of “disruptive” technologies that would have left it farther ahead of Russia and China than it now sits. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld certainly made pursuit of such technologies a priority, at least before Iraq derailed his plans.

But available technology rarely dominates strategic decision-making.  Extra Raptors and Zumwalts could enhance American freedom of action at the margins, but would hardly have changed the trend lines of relative power in East Asia.  Similarly, Future Combat Systems would not have given the United States much more in the way of political options for resisting Russian encroachment into Ukraine. And it is clearly wrong to believe that the money and attention devoted to Iraq would unproblematically have shifted over to research and development if the Bush administration had decided against intervention.

Moreover, the demands of the Iraq War (as well as the Afghanistan conflict) undoubtedly drove some technological development.  The Iraq War revealed significant problems with how the Army and Air Force, in particular, viewed the future of warfare, leading to technological and doctrinal innovations that have improved U.S. warfighting capabilities.

The bigger domestic change may have come in terms of the public’s attitude towards war. In the fifteen years after the end of the Cold War, the U.S. public became more tolerant towards the use of force than it had been in the post-Vietnam era. The Iraq War changed that, dramatically; today, few serious candidates for President support even a limited land war against ISIS. 

President Barack Obama won the 2008 Democratic primary because of his opposition to the Iraq War in 2003, and whatever one’s attitude towards the drone war, the Obama administration clearly favors a less interventionist policy than its predecessors. This preference seems to accord with public and elite opinion about the use of force.

Does this reticence limit U.S. strategic options?  America assisted France, the United Kingdom, and Libyan rebel forces with the deposition of the Gaddafi regime in 2011, notwithstanding any reluctance to use force.  The U.S. continues to carry out a drone-and-special-forces war against Al Qaeda, across the Middle East. However, the reluctance to use force has surely played some role in the Obama administration’s reaction to the Syria conflict, which has raged with minimal American intervention for the last four years. 

Parting Thoughts:

Great powers have the luxury of making costly mistakes.  The many lives and endless treasure that the United States expended in Vietnam did little to affect the course of the Cold War, as the Soviet economy and Soviet society collapsed under their own weight. During the imperial era, Britain, France, and Russia regularly made terrible strategic errors that seemed catastrophic at the time but had little impact on the overall strategic picture.